Pope Francis
Pope Francis salutes from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking an empty St.Peter's square after his livestreamed the Angelus prayer on March 22, 2020 at the Vatican. Image Credit: AP

Pope Francis called for civil unions for gay couples, in what would be a significant shift from the Catholic Church's long-held opposition to homosexuals getting married.

"They're children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it," Francis is quoted as saying in a new documentary. "What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered."

This is a departure from the position of his predecessors and the comments will revive the debate within the church on sexual morals, and draw criticism from conservatives who say the pope has drifted too from traditional values.

The pontiff appeared to have discussed same-sex civil unions during an interview with filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky for his documentary "Francesco" that premiered in Rome on Oct. 21.

The Catholic Church has long resisted the idea that same-sex couples should enjoy legal protection. That was the case in Italy where civil unions are described as something different from marriage, which remains the prerogative of a man-woman relationship.

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Francis has made inclusiveness of his papacy, as he battles declining numbers of Catholics and pressure to have the church attune to modern society while not losing its moral compass.

He's demonstrated a willingness to discuss topics such as communion for divorced people, absolution for women who've had abortions, and the ordination of women and married priests. In doing so, he's amplified a growing schism within the church.

The latest endorsement does come as a surprise, also in the manner it slipped out. The Vatican has yet to comment. The documentary chronicles Pope Francis's approach to pressing social issues.

Until now, the pontiff has defended traditional marriage as a union which allows a couple to procreate. So if confirmed, it's a major change with a series of knock-on effects.

"This is the first time that this pope or his predecessors have called for civil legal rights for same-sex couples," said Austen Ivereigh, papal biographer.

"Previous popes very much left this issue to national bishops conferences to decide," he added, "so the Church can now be clear on where the Pope stands on an issue that has been discussed by many bishops in many countries for many years."

The Vatican, though an independent state, is surrounded by Rome and has cast a long shadow on Italy's politics and of many countries with large Catholic populations.

Italy lags behind most other European countries on homosexual and gender rights, and only legalized same-sex unions in 2016. While same-sex couples have access to most legal rights enjoyed by married couples, there's no legal protection for children born to same-sex couples.

Former interior minister Matteo Salvini, leader of rightist League party, has been a vocal opponent of homosexual rights, denying the children of same-sex unions to have the name of both parents on national ID cards.

Francis's predecessor, Benedict XVI, was firmly against plans by then-premier Romano Prodi to recognize civil unions, including those of same-sex couples, in 2007.

The Vatican said at the time that any legislation giving greater legal status to unmarried couples would be exploited by homosexuals seeking to marry. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the papal spokesman on domestic affairs, said then that there was no reason "to create a model that would resemble a marriage."

"Only the foundation of complete and irrevocable love between man and woman is capable of forming the basis of a society that becomes the home of all men," Benedict said in 2006, denouncing gay marriage. He said "confusing marriage with other types of unions based on a love that is weak" should be avoided.